America’s Cup, Seeking Bigger Audience, Changes Its Rules

This was a big shift for a sport that has traditionally been indifferent to the idea of an audience. But new revenue was needed to help sailing teams struggling to raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to build and sail the boats for the Cup, so the organization decided to chase the broadcast television deals and sponsorships that are the lifeblood of many other sports.

The basic strategy was to add increasing speed and danger to sailing, by using winged catamarans, boats that move much faster, but also capsize easily, and holding races close to shore, where wind patterns are less predictable.

The America’s Cup will get its first chance to test its product with a United States audience this weekend, when a part of the World Series race in Newport, R.I., will be broadcast on NBC. This is the first time a professional sailing race will be shown live on a major American network in 20 years.

Assuming that faster, more dangerous races can generate interest, there is still one major challenge: even sailors acknowledge that their sport can be almost incomprehensible to the naked eye.

The task of changing this belongs to Stan Honey, whom the America’s Cup hired as its director of technology last spring. Honey has made a career out of creating augmented reality for sports broadcasts. He is best known for the glowing first-down line in football telecasts, and he has also developed glowing hockey pucks for N.H.L. games, the illuminated strike zone for baseball and various graphics for Nascar races.

Sailing is in more dire need of augmented reality than perhaps any other sport, said Honey, a former professional sailor. Boats tack back and forth, trying to catch pockets of wind that will propel them through a race’s various legs. It can be difficult to determine who is ahead, or what strategy is being employed to remain there.

“If you don’t put the graphics on the water, you end up with people saying, O.K., white triangles on a blue background,” Honey said.

So Honey has developed the LiveLine system, a virtual playing field that lays on top of the telecast. On television, boats fly flags identifying themselves. White lines appear at regular intervals, and blue lines mark the boundaries of pitch, turning a patch of open water into something resembling a nautical football field. Yellow circles surround the motorboats that mark the end of each leg, identifying the areas where the changes in which a boat has the right of way can come into play.

To do this, Honey’s team has to measure the position of every boat to within an inch at all times, while also measuring the position and angle of every helicopter-mounted television camera. It is also collecting data on wind and water conditions, which play heavily into sailing strategy, and looking for ways to incorporate that into the television display.

By collecting this data, Honey’s team has ended up changing how the races operate. Race officials now watch the sailing on monitors from a control room on the shore, and any decision that relies on the objective knowledge of a boat’s position is made using the same positional data used to create the graphics.

The new approach has also inspired some new rules. Until recently, the penalty for certain fouls required a team to stop its boat and spin it in a circle. Now, a virtual line appears two boat lengths behind the offender, which must move behind the line to pay off the penalty. For 10 seconds, that line moves at the same speed as the boat. After that, the line slows to three-quarters of the boat’s speed.

The America’s Cup has also begun using computerized data analysis to change the course of the race, while the race is in progress, to make sure that the event fits easily into broadcast time slots. Of course, race officials have always tried to adjust courses for wind conditions; they just have not been able to do it with such precision.


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